Leaving Las Vegas

PSB’s Paul Barton, proud designer of the new Imagine Mini. Photo: Bob Deutsch.

I complain—a lot—about Vegas. I have to apologize to my family, friends, and colleagues for all the whining I’ve let loose over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry.

I should apologize to you, too, Las Vegas, because there must be more to you than all your neon lights and annoying buzzers and piped oxygen and smoky casinos, your fancy facades and empty promises—everything in Las Vegas looks beautiful from afar, but the closer you get, the uglier it becomes, the clearer its lies and flaws, the more readily apparent its cracks and hollow insides—I have to wonder: Are even the mountains a mirage?—your insulting buffets and gaudy theme restaurants and those relentless dudes who crowd the sidewalks with packets of coupons for a good time: Slap, “for you,” slap, “for you,” slap, “for you.” I would love to knock you over. You make me ill, Las Vegas. You really do. Where is your soul?


I was apologizing. I was saying there must be more to Las Vegas; I was saying I’ve been unfair. Las Vegas is home to many beautiful people, and for one week out of the long year, the world of consumer electronics gathers in Las Vegas to share its stories, to reconnect, to recharge.

We call it the Consumer Electronics Show. It brings me to Las Vegas. At a little after 7pm on Wednesday evening, I arrived at the Hyatt and was greeted in the lobby by our web monkey, Jon Iverson. This was the perfect way to begin the show. I gave Jon a bear hug and almost knocked him over. We settled into our rooms and later met up for dinner with John Atkinson, Kal Rubinson, Bob Deutsch, and Jason Victor Serinus. We exchanged stories, we took pictures, we talked about music, literature, movies, and we devised a plan of attack: John Atkinson would cover expensive speakers, Jon Iverson would cover digital components, Kal would cover multichannel for his April issue column, Bob would tackle low-to-moderately priced speakers, Jason would hunt down accessories and cables, and I would be responsible for lower-priced products. (Subsequently Tyll Hertsens joined our team with some well-informed headphone coverage.)

Somewhere else in Las Vegas, a wild-haired Mikey Fremer was telling jokes about Ken Kessler to Ken Kessler. And, high above the ground, Erick Lichte was on a plane, daydreaming about mighty tube amplifiers and curiously shaped DACs, looking forward to his sophomore year at CES.

CES represents the only time I get to hang out with most of these guys. (It was, in fact, the only time I’ve ever hung out with Erick.) And, for me, that’s the big story. More than for the gear, even more than for the music, I look forward to CES for the people.

But CES, like most hi-fi shows, is a party of compromises. We can’t hear all the gear, get to all of the exhibits and seminars, attend all the parties, meet all the people. No matter how much ground I cover, I inevitably feel as though I’ve missed more than I’ve experienced. (Music Hall’s Leland Leard tells me I missed out on seeing EAT’s Jozefina Krahulcova in a stunning Emilio Pucci dress.) In fact, I did not even get to see Paul Barton at all during CES, though I did get to hear his new Imagine Mini ($700/pair), which managed to pump out some of the most compelling sounds I heard at the show, despite its small size. It’s always a pleasure to chat with Paul Barton because his passion for his work and his intimate knowledge of its every aspect is always wonderfully apparent. Unlike Vegas’s Strip, Paul Barton is not about pretense.

As with any situation that is littered by compromises, we have to make the most of those experiences we do get to enjoy. An interesting consequence of my covering lower-priced products was that I didn’t get to hear all that much music. Many of the products that fell within my beat were only on static display, so it was a treat when on Saturday morning I tagged along with Jon and Kal to the Mirage to say hello to On A Higher Note’s Philip O’Hanlon. Philip had set up a killer system comprising Luxman amplification, Audioaero electronics, and Vivid loudspeakers. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that we listened to four entire songs—this would be the most time I spent in any single room at the show—all the while enchanted by the system’s ability to impart the deep emotion of music. At recent shows, O’Hanlon had gone out of his way to impress us with volume and dynamic range, but halfway into the second track of this year’s CES demo, I knew Philip was up to something different. He was looking to impress us with nuance and delicacy. It worked. O’Hanlon’s On A Higher Note suite at the Mirage provided my favorite sounds of the show.

I scribbled, quickly, to make it seem like I was actually working:

There is delicacy and detail with great breaths of air, and a sense of utter effortlessness. This is music and nothing else. Every word and pluck of string is emotionally evocative and entirely intelligible regardless of language or instrument. It all makes sense. And when Peter Gabriel sings, “Baby, don’t cry,” I want to cry. And when the music stops, there is nothing but silence—silence pregnant with expectation and desire for more music.

Which is how it should be. The best hi-fi does not replace music, but fuels our desire for the discovery of more and more music. Some of us judge hi-fi by how well it reproduces the sound of live acoustic instruments in any given space. Some judge hi-fi by how well it performs on the test bench. I prefer to judge hi-fi by how strongly it compels me to discover new music, and by how well it elicits my natural emotional response to any piece of music, taking me back to a particular time and place. I’m talking about hi-fi as an emotional conductor, hi-fi as a time-machine. That emotional response is the only absolute reference I have to rely on. Now, whenever I hear Peter Gabriel singing “The Boy in the Bubble,” I will dig back to the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show and I will call up the emotions I felt while listening to Philip O’Hanlon’s system at the Mirage.

And now the highs and lows:

Hottest booth babe of the 2011 CES
—Our very own Rosemarie Torcivia, of course.

Best Indian Food EVER
—India Palace (505 East Twain Avenue) with the entire team from Zu Audio; it was especially great to meet all the guys who work behind the scenes, building the cables and cartridges, and painting the gorgeous cabinets.

Some of the more purely fun moments of the 2011 CES
—Looking out at the mountains from the 29th floor of the Venetian
—Taking a photo with Salon Son et Image’s blue-haired girls
—Chocolate milk shakes with the gang at Mr. Lucky’s at the Hard Rock
—Giving Rosemarie a back rub
—Running into a friend from San Francisco while walking through the casino at the Venetian (WTF?!)
—Receiving text messages from friends and family back home

Biggest regret about the 2011 CES
—Missing out on seeing EAT’s Jozefina Krahulcova in a stunning Emilio Pucci dress (Leland, I’m still waiting for that video footage!)

It was a pleasure to finally meet you
—John McDonald, Audience

I’m sorry we didn’t have more time to chat
—Steve Silberman, AudioQuest

Stop using your newborn babies as an excuse for not coming to the CES
—Jaclyn Gooding, Vandersteen

Best scratchy, old 78RPM discs
—Tone Imports & DeVore Fidelity

Cleverest use of double-entendre
—Scull Communication’s Jonathan Scull, grinning and dangling a Furutech Flow-28 in-line AC power filter

Best light show (again)
NFS Audio

Most surprising encounter
—Zach, a reader and fellow reporter, complimenting me on something I’d said during the “Ask the Editors” panel at the 2010 Salon Son et Image. (It’s just a crazy honor that someone would remember anything I’ve said.)

And, finally:

My favorite interview of the 2011 CES
—Anssi Hyvönen of Amphion, discussing hi-fi’s place in nature and its ability to nourish our souls

Cool stuff. It’s these things—the people, the music, the memories good and bad, and especially the stories shared and created—that make the Consumer Electronics Show such an amazing experience.

On Sunday, the last day of the show, Jon Iverson used my hotel room to post a few more blog entries before driving home. He mentioned that he was looking forward to the drive. “There’s something special about driving home,” he said, “but especially when you’re leaving Las Vegas.”

“That makes sense,” I said. And at that moment, I wished that I could jump in a car and drive all the way home, too.

Instead, I spent that day attempting to cover all that I had missed, traveling to the Flamingo, the Convention Center, and finally back to the Venetian. When I returned to my room, there was a note from Jon: Thanks, SM. See you soon.

Soon, but not soon enough. The fact is that I most likely won’t see Jon again until next year’s Consumer Electronics Show. I’m looking forward to it. . . .But can’t it be held in Jersey City or Brooklyn? (Just kidding, Las Vegas.)

Erick Lichte's picture
Somehow, Stephen, you make poetry out of the mad-dashery and artifice that is CES and Las Vegas. It was a pleasure to work with you and the rest of the Stereophile crew. See you next year!
JasonVSerinus's picture

I am tempted to say that Erick stole out of my mouth the very words I wished to post. But the truth is that there is more than enough beauty in Stephen's summation for all to share. Writing of the highest order, reflecting a rare sensibility.

Thank you Stephen. Thank you Erick. Thank you Jon, Bob, Tyll, and John. Thank you all for being who you are, and for giving so much of yourselves to this report. It has been a pleasure to work and hang with you.

Catch22's picture

Best post of the show coverage. The writing style reminds me of a quote by one of our early Vice-Presidents when asked what he thought of the job of being VP...to which he replied, "It is a splendid misery."

Bill Leebens's picture

Once again, lovely work. Thanks for transcending the trash and tinsel that most of us obssess over.

As always: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times....

vlad54's picture

Like all said its one of your best post, i'm new in your world but all that i discovered is excellent.



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